Note: These rules are changing, head over to the Section 508 Refresh page to learn more about the January 2017 updated guidelines!

First, let me start by saying that I intended to write posts that help clarify the current state of accessibility laws for people. I know that we all hear about these things over and over but we never really know what they mean or how they apply to us. I’m not an expert in these things, and I have not truthfully experienced Section 508 in practice in any sort of meaningful way.

So if you have had any experience with it, be it negative or positive, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I know that a lot of rules are put in place with good intentions, but they don’t always help as much as they should. If you have every run into any really positive changes made by Section 508, or noticed any mystifying barriers that the regulation creates, please let us all know in the comments below. After all, staying informed and aware is one of the best ways to ensure we know and exercise our legal rights.

On that note, the recent US presidential election has made me aware of the fact that these laws may change. I do not specifically know which policies may be changed, or if any will actually be impacted at all. But if you notice any changes, please also comment on those. I will try and stay current as well and try to develop posts regarding accessibility policy changes that might impact you.

Anyway, now that I’ve made that somewhat lengthy introduction, let’s talk about what Section 508 is and what it could mean for you.

Section 508 Basics

Section 508 in a sentence: Federal Departments and Agencies need to make sure that the digital stuff they use and create is accessible to everyone. The official details regarding Section 508 can be found on the government’s Section 508 website.

The Birth of Section 508

The Rehabilitation Act was first established in the early 1970s, but at that time the digital landscape was totally different (as you can probably imagine). Luckily, the Act was able to be changed to include more room for digital accommodations. As a result, the Rehabilitation Act was amended in the late 1990s to include Section 508, “Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandates that government electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities, including visual and auditory impairments.”[2] So everyone should be able to use the things the government puts out there.

Even if a website follows all of the necessary best practices, it still might not be perfect for everyone. That is why assistive technology exists, and people need to consider that when making their digital content. “The goal of Section 508 is that EIT be compatible with assistive technology. In some cases, the standards require that the acquired EIT be readily usable without the need for assistive devices.”[3] As new assistive tech is developed and becomes widely used, the hope is that the government agencies will keep pace and make sure everything they create is compatible with the new technology.

How Do I Know if a Site Is Compliant?

The website 508 Checker explains compliance well, “In a nutshell, 508 compliance means that all users, regardless of disability status, can access technology. It’s a way to break down barriers and provide new opportunities for all Internet users.”[4] To verify that  a website complies, you can find helpful resources online to find and potential issues or noncompliant sections of your website.

Just like there are WCAG 2.0 accessibility checkers, there are also Section 508 compliance checkers. Some helpful Section 508 checkers available are:

  1. 508Checker – This site asks you to enter your URL and then it will help guide you through whether or not your website is compliant. Note, you will have to enter your name and work email (and I’m not sure what they use it for/if they’ll send you any emails).
  2. WebAIM Section 508 Checklist – There are lots of great accessibility resources on WebAIM. This handy checklist lists the standards that Section 508 and then the gives you the details on how you can tell if your site complies with that standard. They even include information on what might make your site fail.
  3. viget – If you’re a designer for a government agency, you’re going to want to check this site out. It gives you some basic but helpful tips on how to ensure the site you are designing is compliant. They also seem to have a great perspective on compliance that I recommend we all follow, “It provides the minimum standards for what is deemed acceptable, and minimum really does not make a site fully accessible. Sure, you can make the effort to be 508 compliant, but the wording is very vague. Make the effort to be accessible, not just 508 compliant.”[5] I second that!

The point of digital accessibility isn’t to make designers jump through superficial hoops and create unappealing websites. It’s a way to expand your audience, and open the internet to everyone who wants to access your content.

While Section 508 is just government specific, it can help anyone and everyone creating a website or any digital content to understand accessibility a bit better. The more you understand the barriers that some people encounter when using the web, the better you will be equipped to help break them down.